Alfonso Belmonte did not give away his high school years. 

The 17-year-old played basketball and volleyball, worked middle school hoops games, volunteered with the homeless, had friends and fun, and nailed his academic workload at Atwater High School.

But the highly motivated Falcon was also taking classes at Merced College the past three and a half years.

When Belmonte received his high school diploma at Atwater High on June 4, he’d already completed the rite of passage, while receiving four associate degrees, at Merced College two weeks earlier.

“When I first started, it was kinda like people telling me I needed to do it,” Belmonte said of his accomplishment. “But as the years went by, I felt more like, ‘Hey, I can do this. I can finish it.’ And people believed in me.”

There is a strong movement afoot within secondary education to encourage students like Belmonte to earn college credits while in high school via dual enrollment. 

“Dual enrollment is how high school students get their feet wet in a college education,” Merced College Vice President of Student Services Mike McCandless said. “We know that when they take college classes while in high school, and receive some support, the likelihood that they continue in higher education increases exponentially.”

Student demand is increasing. According to McCandless, Merced College has more than tripled their dual enrollment offerings the past two years alone. There were 21 sections in Fall 2019, 49 in Fall 2020 and 77 in Spring 2021. The college’s full-time dual enrollment student population more than doubled from 48 in Fall 2019 to 97 in Spring 2021.

Belmonte officially earned Associate of Arts degrees in Psychology and Social & Behavioral Sciences as well as Associate Degrees for Transfer in Psychology and Sociology, having taken Merced College classes at Atwater High, online and in-person at the college.

He estimates roughly half of his 60 Merced College credits fulfilled requirements in at least two ways—for high school graduation, for an associate degree or for A-G courses, i.e., high school classes that make you eligible for admission to University of California and California State University campuses.

“We have a series of courses every fall and every spring that do the same, like English 1A and 1B or history and political science,” said Greg Soto, Merced College’s Dean of Dual Enrollment, Outreach and Guided Pathways. “It’s a clean exchange, so we’ve created a menu of options that allow students to replicate that experience every fall and spring.”

It starts with the College and Career Access Pathways (CCAP) courses, which are taught at local high schools by Merced College faculty members. They’re free to Merced Union High School District students, and students have the option of taking online courses or coming to campus for class.

“But we also want these motivated high school students to play sports and take part in cheer or FFA or student leadership,” Soto said. “We have to be flexible in how we structure their course load, but it can be done.”

Belmonte succeeded thanks to the help he got from his pathways counselor, which the college hires for each feeder school, and his AHS counselor.

“They’re there to eliminate barriers.” Soto said of the pathways counselors.

Atwater High principal Bret Theodozio said his guidance counselors do the heavy lifting, making sure their students can handle a college workload.

“Sometimes they’re not ready, and they struggle,” said Atwater High counselor Robert Nunes, who worked with Belmonte. “We don’t want them to fail a class or have withdrawals on their permanent transcripts. We are mindful of who we send along that path, but we promote the option now. It’s a district goal.”

McCandless said they always want to be good partners with the local high schools.

“That’s our future,” he said. “When we are integrated in their academic journey, if we increase their chances of getting a degree or completing a certificate or preparing them to transfer to a four-year school, we consider that a win.”

Belmonte wants to become a teacher. He will matriculate at CSU Stanislaus in August as an academic junior. The workload will hold no mystery for him. He is ready.

“A lot of [high school students] I know are smart enough to do this work,” Belmonte said. “Many college classes aren’t much more difficult than high school ones. The only difference is, in high school, they force you to do work. In college, it’s all on you. You’re motivated in a totally different way.”